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    Checking Our Bias at the Door

    By Alina O'Donnell
     | Jul 13, 2018

    Kids on BusIn an ideal world, every teacher would approach every student like a blank slate of potential. But the truth is, despite teachers’ best efforts, prejudices and assumptions get projected onto students. A recent study in the Social Science Research journal found that teacher bias has a profound impact on students’ own expectations and achievement.

    As a pre-K–12 trainer for educational equity with her organization, Seed the Way, Rebecca EunMi Haslam dismantles systemic bias for a living. Although she acknowledges that none of us are immune to bias, she says we can all do our part to “try to be aware and increase our capacity to question our assumptions, to recognize when our perspectives might be influencing our judgments and expectations of others, and to check our bias at the classroom door with the goal of aligning our stated core values with our actions.” 

    In the July/August issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine, Haslam makes the case that speaking openly about racism, bias, and inequity makes for better teaching and learning. She unpacks bias and self-assessment, schema theory, values-based teaching principles, personal politics and religious beliefs, and implications for student outcomes. 

    As an organization that strives to bring equity issues to the forefront of literacy education, we feel that this is a must-read for all educators—which is why we’ve decided to make this article open-access.

    Alina O'Donnell is the communications strategist at ILA and the editor of Literacy Daily.
     
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    Should We Teach Reading Comprehension Strategies?

    By Mark Pennington
     | Jul 06, 2018

    reading-comprehension-strategiesReading teachers like to teach. For most of us, that means that we need to have something to share with our students: some concept, some skill, some strategy. To teach content, teachers must be able to define what the content is and is not. Teachers also need to be able to determine how the content is to be taught, practiced, and ultimately mastered. The latter requirement necessitates some form of assessment.

    However, teachers do recognize that reading involves things that we can’t teach: in other words, the process of reading. Thinking comes to mind; so does the reader’s self-monitoring of text; and the reader’s connection to personal prior knowledge.

    But what about reading comprehension? Is it content or process? Can we teach it, practice it, and master it? Is reading comprehension the result or goal of reading?

    Those who hope that comprehension is the result look to fill developing readers with the concepts needed to be learned, such as phonological (phonemic) awareness; the alphabetic principle; reading from left to right; understanding punctuation; and spacing. Teachers also introduce, practice, and assess student mastery of the requisite reading skills, including phonics, syllabication, analogizing, and recognizing whole words by sight. These concepts and skills have a solid research base and a positive correlation with proficient reading comprehension.

    Furthermore, these concepts or skills can be clearly defined, taught as discrete components, and assessed to determine mastery.

    The same cannot be said for reading comprehension strategies, such as activation of prior knowledge, cause and effect, compare and contrast, fact and opinion, author's purpose, classify and categorize, drawing conclusions, figurative language, elements of plot, story structure, theme, context clues, point of view, inference categories, text structure, and characterization.

    Note that the list does not include summarizing the main idea, making connections, rethinking, interpreting, and predicting. These seem more akin to reader response actions than strategies, per se.

    None of the specific reading comprehension strategies has demonstrated statistically significant effects on reading comprehension on its own as a discrete skill. Although plenty of lessons, activities, bookmarks, and worksheets provide some means of how to learn practice, none of these strategies can be taught to mastery, nor accurately assessed.

    So, if individual reading comprehension strategies fail to meet the criteria for research-based concepts and skills to improve reading comprehension, should we teach any of them and require our students to practice them?

    Yes, but minimally—as process, not content. We need to teach these strategies as being what good readers do as they read. The think-aloud provides an effective means of modeling each reading comprehension strategy. Some practice, such as a read-think-pair-share, makes sense to reinforce what the strategy entails. A brief writing activity, requiring students to apply the strategy, could also be helpful. But minimal instructional  time is key.

    Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, suggests that reading comprehension strategies are better thought of as tricks, rather than as skill-builders. They work because they make plain to readers that it’s a good idea to monitor whether they understand as they read.

    In other words, teaching a reading comprehension strategy, such as cause and effect, is not a transferable reading skill, which once learned and practiced can be applied to another reading passage by a developing reader. However, when teachers model paying attention to the author’s use of cause and effect in a story or article and have students practice key cause and effect transition words in their own context clue sentences, it’s the analysis of the text and the author’s writing that’s valuable, not the strategy in and of itself.

    In fact, a 2014 study by Gail Lovette and Daniel Willingham found three quantitative reviews of reading comprehension strategies instruction in typically developing children and five reviews of studies of at-risk children or those with reading disabilities. All eight reviews reported that reading comprehension strategies instruction boosted reading comprehension, but none reported that practice of such instruction yielded further benefit. The outcome of 10 sessions was the same as the outcome of 50. 

    So, should we teach reading comprehension strategies? Yes, but as part of the reading process, not as isolated skills with extensive practice. Reading comprehension strategies have their place in beginning reading, content reading, and reading intervention classes, but not as substitutes for reading concepts and skills.

    Mark Pennington, reading specialist, is the author of the Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program and the Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books for struggling readers.

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    Becoming Best-Selling Authors: How Three Classrooms Used Their Voices for Social Justice Causes

    By Katie Schrodt, Erin FitzPatrick, and Suze Gilbert
     | Jun 27, 2018

    These days, it seems we can’t look at our phone or computer without being bombarded with others’ opinions. Perhaps, for this reason, it has never been more important to encourage our children to express themselves in ways that rise above the din (and involve more than 140 characters!). What follows are author signing experiences in three very different Tennessee classrooms with three very different teachers. Yet, they all share a common theme: students learning that their voices are important and can powerfully impact their communities beyond the classroom. In fact, their voices can even change the world.

    Reclaiming community  

    schrodt2The classroom I shared with 16 fourth graders was on the east side of Nashville. Not the swanky East Nashville where million-dollar townhomes are popping up, but the one referenced by the “Over the river and through the hood, 37206” bumper stickers on the new cars rolling through. Gentrification had arrived, and along with benefits, it brought tension. Inspired by my experience with Middle Tennessee Writing Project, I sought ways my students could use writing to explore their world, free of encroaching social boundaries. I asked myself, What do “real” authors do to showcase their work? The answer: they host author signings.

    Each student was asked to complete a writing project, which was then formatted for publication. We invited the community to a “Meet the Authors” event and asked attendees to bring a $10 roll of quarters. My team teacher and I held author training sessions to prep students on how to engage with an audience, and provided students 25 copies of their work. But would people come? My heart nearly burst as professors from local universities, art gallery owners, data scientists, a parole hearing officer, fellow teachers, and a renowned local composer—more than 50 people in total—came to support my students and to hear the reading of their work, the offering of their intellectual property.

    Throughout the day, students read their works, collected quarters for each signed copy, shook hands, and generally enchanted new “fans” they would never have otherwise encountered. After the signing, we sent letters of appreciation to each attendee and nearly half wrote us back to tell us how profoundly they had been impacted. Through their writing, these fourth graders realized that they had powerful, relevant stories to tell and unimagined audiences eager to listen.

    “Gotcha days”

    schrodt1Four of the 14 kindergarten students in my Franklin, Tennessee, classroom were adoptees. At the suggestion of their parents, the class embarked on a month-long project to celebrate their “gotcha days” (the anniversary of the day the child joined his or her adoptive family) to gain a better understanding of what it means to be adopted. Each week we read a new book about adoption and the students brought a book home to share with their families. Their responses, recorded in a journal, were then discussed in class, with incredible results. After reading Grace Lin’s The Red Thread: An Adoption Fairytale (Albert Whitman & Company), a student named Carly revealed that her aunt and uncle were hoping to adopt a baby named Eli. She explained that they were still trying to raise enough money to complete the long and expensive process.

    Immediately the students began talking about how they could help, offering to sell their toys and even their writing. We advertised our best work to the community for 25 cents a copy and, in the end, raised over $100 toward the adoption of Carly’s new cousin.

    Writing for social justice

    schrodt3My eighth-grade students were reading Livia Bitton-Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years: Growing up in the Holocaust (Simon Pulse), but couldn’t seem to connect to the narrative. Realizing that it was difficult to grasp that moment in history from the comfort of our Murfreesboro classroom, I asked myself, How can I move them so that they will move? When I expanded the discussion to current day oppression and slavery, my students were shocked to learn that such atrocities still exist. As they began to ask questions, I sensed an opportunity. We decided to use our writing to raise awareness and support for Exile International, a nonprofit dedicated to helping former child soldiers in Uganda. The students broke up into teams and wrote proposals outlining their plans, including seeking support from the school principal, the student body, and local leaders. The community responded, and we raised $1,500 to help Exile International fight oppression and slavery.

    These three projects empowered students to use their voice and the power of the written word to impact a family, an East Nashville community, and another continent. After the Meet the Author event, one student for whom teachers had once collected grocery money, joyfully announced that she was able to help support her family using proceeds from her writing. Our hearts broke a little, but we were also overjoyed that she had the opportunity to write her truth, contribute to the world and earn money to help the people she loved most. We don’t know if it changed her life, but it certainly changed ours.

    Katie Schrodt is an assistant professor for the College of education at Middle Tennessee State University. She teaches courses related to literacy and the elementary classroom. 

    Erin FitzPatrick is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She teaches courses related to reading and assessment for students with special needs.

    Suze Gilbert is an assistant professor for the College of Education at Middle Tennessee State University. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses focusing on language and literacy. 

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    Summer Reading Intervention: Self-Care

    By Justin Stygles
     | Jun 20, 2018

    Summer ReadingWhen I think of summer reading, I think about the scores of fifth- and sixth-grade students arriving at my makeshift, intervention-based literacy classroom, prepared to embark on a summer reading challenge. My readers do not share the same sentiment. In their minds, summer reading means, How long can I passively resist this required hour of reading intervention?

    As each summer day drifts by, I can’t help but wonder if we were all set up to fail in the first place. My summer school kids know exactly why they are in summer school. They think that summer reading is what happens to kids who “can’t read” during the school year. Yet, here these students are, amid the consequence of their “failure,” while their friends are off in pools or lakes taking in the delights of summer.

    Reading at the middle level is more than reading skills, such as phonics and decoding. Reading is also more than strategies and questions. Yet, when I ask administrators about our goals and outcomes for summer reading, I am told,  “We need to prove we maintained or improved their reading levels to report to the state.”

    Who is reading really about?

    Readers at the middle level spend a consuming amount of time figuring out who they are. Too often, reading is rejected from this identity, for good reason. Reading is often presented as an imposition, something that needs to be done for someone. When reading toward an assessment, score, or level, students know the purpose of summer reading. That purpose is not for their own benefit.

    What about self-care?

    There is an unacknowledged degree of self-care in reading. Many of the students who sit in my summer reading program lack basic consciousness of self-care. Still young, they live their lives at the whims and decisions of others. Their enrollment is beyond their control, making the intervention somewhat counterproductive.

    Investing time to help students develop self-efficacy, self-regulation, and metacognition, as well as to reframe their self-perception, should be prioritized over skill-based reading. When readers are invested in the development of their own reading process, they acquire the skills they need to become more proficient readers. In some of my summer reading settings, we focus on supporting readers’ engagement with text. We spend time determining book selection, and discussing the feelings and emotions attached to reading. Over time, these students build the skills needed to embrace more challenging texts. Now the door is open to focus on skills.

    When a reader adopts reading as a form of self-care, he or she accepts reading as a means to improve himself or herself. He or she is more likely to explore resources and avenues to overcome challenges, without fear or consequence. The middle-level reader who uses reading as self-care takes times out of his or her busy day to relieve stress. The reader also prioritizes the conditions in which he or she reads to maximize the experience.

    Reading is a cognitive practice. But reading also requires a sense of security and confidence. We all know middle school readers whose minds are moving 1,000 miles per hour, whose emotions are inconsistent, and whose sense of self changes as often as the lights on the Empire State Building. When the reader’s physiology is in flux, adopting reading as a measure of self-care is a complicated task. Often these readers assume a degree of shame about their “inability” to read comfortably like their “smarter” peers.

    I feel the summer reading classroom should be a substitute for what readers may not have available to them outside of school. My summer classroom is a scaffold to autonomous reading rather than a continuation of instructional situations that fueled the readers’ reluctance.

    If reading was about the child’s well-being—rather than the reading level—would we have as many reluctant middle-level readers in our summer classrooms?

    I think the answer is no.

    In turn, rather than finding ways to remind middle-level readers of their weakness, we should help them experience the positive effects on their emotional, physical, and cognitive well-being. When our readers invest in reading as a form of self-care, they will become more receptive readers, rather than resistant.

    Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He’s taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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    Literacy Lessons From the Track

    By Justin Stygles
     | May 09, 2018
    racing

    Does reading ability determine our future success? And if so, by whose standard? 

    Days after the Kentucky Derby, I think back to my experience working as a groom at various harness (horse) race tracks and as an aspiring driver at Morrisville State College in New York. My day at the track typically started at 6:00 a.m. (many others arrived before 5:00 a.m.). Before noon, my three to five horses would be fed, harnessed, jogged, bathed, and wrapped. And I would be exhausted. Depending on the race day, we might have a few hours in the afternoon to relax, if we didn't ship to another track or race a matinee card. Usually, the afternoon carried another set of responsibilities, leaving little time to read.

    When I did read, I would peruse weekly racing recap magazines, such as Times in Harness or The Horseman at the tack shop, but nothing that substantiated sustained reading. Did I squander an opportunity? I had the ability to read. I could read fluently, comprehend, and interpret. Yet I abstained, whether by choice or circumstance. Did I choose not to read, with what little spare time I had?

    Many backstretch workers I spent time with didn’t have that luxury. Such souls, some of the kindest and craftiest people I’ve ever met, faced the stark reality of illiteracy, where career mobility didn’t exist. For those men and women, working with horses provided security in a world where no security could be found without the ability to read.

    One elderly man I worked with had a magnificent touch with horses. He could calm a horse and tend to each one like his own child. He could also fix every part of my Plymouth Reliant. But he could never train a horse. Like several others we worked with, he couldn’t read the regulations for licensure, condition sheets, or stall applications, let alone a newspaper. They survived on hands-on knowledge and intellect.

    The gentleman made enough money to scrape by, just like the rest of us (In 1996, that was $250 a week, with housing provided). When we had time, sitting on track trunks along the shedrow, he'd express why we needed to go back and finish college. He regretted his inability to read.

    Years ago, I worked with a young teenager who loved harness racing. As I watched him move through the grades, I noticed that he struggled to acquire reading skills, whether in class or specialized interventions. But he loved his race horses. He could tell you every detail on every horse and he could critique a horse’s performance on par with a professional handicapper or horseman.

    Eventually, he faced a challenge. He could only work at the track if he improved his grades. By the time he was old enough to drive, he had enough literacy capacity—gained primarily through the language of the track and the pressure to pass his classes—to be successful and to earn a living at the track. However, the idea of reading a book for pleasure was a foreign concept. He became what I call a "functional reader": one who reads to survive or succeed in a career field, but not by choice or for pleasure.

    Consider our schools and classrooms, our pressures and expectations. Do students really only need to achieve reading competency during school, or is recreational reading essential to one’s overall quality of life?

    Reading is not a possession or an affirmation, but a gift that each of us must extend to our peers—young or old, rich or poor. We need to extend our purpose, not just to make functional readers, but to encourage reading that inspires, empowers, and connects. After all, literacy is empathy.

    Every summer I spend six weekends at Saratoga Race Course. Sitting in the clocker’s booth alongside the Oklahoma Training Track, I wonder, how often do grooms read? If so, can they read in English? Are they bound to the track because they do not have the basic literacy skills needed to “make it” outside of the horse world? This always causes me to pause. Then, I realize, I don't teach for competency via a state test, grade, or reading level. I teach students to own reading as a part of their lives, so that they never have to wonder what could have been.

    If I am lucky enough, I will return the track and teach those who want a second chance at literacy.

    Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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